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  • Writer's pictureRachel Langan

America’s Education System Is a Mess, and It’s Students Who Are Paying the Price

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

The fundamental cause of poor outcomes is that policy leaders have eroded the instructional core and designed our education system for failure.

Pre-K is a wild West, with the result that students enter kindergarten with large gaps in their readiness to learn. Children aren’t seriously assessed until they are 8, by which time it’s too late for sustained intervention — the gaps never close. Meanwhile, curricula, tests and teacher education programs exist in deep silos, creating a fragmented system where teachers aren’t trained to teach the materials their schools use and tests don’t test students’ mastery of those materials (with a tiny exception in Louisiana).

Almost uniquely among advanced industrialized nations, U.S. school systems disconnect testing from student incentives. State tests are used to evaluate schools but are often irrelevant to students. Grade-point averages and tests like the ACT and SAT, are disconnected from course curricula. Speaking of GPA, we have steadily inflated grades at school and college: We simply call success what was once failure.

We have also created a preferential ranking of subjects. Student achievement in reading and math, and, to a lesser extent, science, get all the attention, while students who are drawn to robotics, graphic design, the arts, environmental science, etc., can’t take high school assessments that count for entry into higher education. At the same time, with a few shining counterexamples, our career and technical learning options are a pale shadow of the world’s best.

The turn away from academics is rocket-propelled by a genuine problem. American teenagers stare at social media on a screen almost nine hours every day, with one result being surging loneliness and depression. Many American school systems have reacted by putting social and emotional learning at the top of the agenda. Few would argue that students shouldn’t be given effective support — putting mental health counselors in large high schools, for example, makes sense. But the pretense that there is a new science of SEL is largely pablum. When you chase it to ground, what it means is that teachers should encourage, not discourage, students: a poor test result calls for more effort, not the conclusion that the child is bad at math. Such wisdom has been available for 2,000 years.

To top it all off, the American K-12 education system spends at least $30 billon per year on educational technology with essentially nothing to show for it. As it was for the introduction of radio, then TV, then computers, so it is likely to be for artificial intelligence — the latest great hope to circumvent and supplant effective, inspiring teaching of children by a human being.

As we have sown, so shall we reap. The unique sense of achievement that a student experiences when she or he masters a rigorous skill, digs into deep knowledge, creates a piece of writing or art, completes a challenging science assignment or piece of music — this is all being washed away. We are tired of bad news, and our instinct is now to punish, or at least ignore, the messenger. But our students are desperately the worse for the mess we have made of their schooling.


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